At this time last year, I was about to graduate from Harvard, with a master’s degree in literature and creative writing. My classes were all done. My thesis was all approved. I even got an email from Harvard, with the subject line blaring CONGRATULATIONS, HARVARD GRADUATE!
You’d think this would be one of the best moments of my life. Instead, it was one of the worst. On the same day I got that email, I was a patient at McLean Hospital. Depression and anxiety had me in their grips. And believe it or not, this email didn’t help. In fact, it freaked me out. I ran in to the office of one of the therapists treating me. I was sobbing. Soon after I got the “official” Harvard email, a flood of other Harvard emails came. All with exclamation points! Order your cap and gown NOW! Get your graduation tickets! You’re invited to THIS graduation party! And THAT graduation party!
All of this gave me one of the worst anxiety attacks I’ve ever had. I’ll never forget how great Stephanie, the McLean therapist, was when I came running to her. She didn’t judge me. Instead, she helped me sort out the emotions I was feeling. “Harvard’s throwing a lot of information at you all at once,” she told me. “It’s a lot to take in. Honestly, I would be a little freaked if all of this came at me all at once.” Very patiently, she worked with me to take the emails and prioritize them: the ones that needed response quickly, the ones that could wait, and the ones that could be ignored all together.
She also gave me a believable reason why I was feeling the way that I did. “College offered you a lot of structure, and you’re about to lose that structure. That can be very scary.” That made sense to me–that, and the irony of getting my “official” email while I was in a mental hospital.
All of this came flooding back to me today as I read this post by Melissa Engle on Unwritten.com. It deals with what so many college students go through. It felt very familiar, because I went through it. It’s an odd paradigm, being high-functioning yet still having a mental illness. You tell yourself that just because you can accomplish things, you’ll be okay. But you can only fool depression for so long. Eventually, it grabs you. Hard.
I’ve come a long way in the past year. I did graduate. And I became involved with Harvard Speaks Up, a video effort designed to reach out to fellow Harvard students who may have a mental illness, but are too embarrassed or ashamed to get help. It has not been easy for me. It still isn’t. But with patience, a concerted effort to change some things in my life, lots of therapy–and yes, meds–I’m becoming the person I was meant to me.
One thing hasn’t changed. I still get a lot of emails from Harvard. Only now, they’re mainly from the Harvard Alumni Association, and I can handle them. I am a Harvard alumnus. I’ve got the diploma to prove it, and no one can take that away from me. It’s nice to be around and appreciate that.
To read the post mentioned above, click here.